After Katrina, Some Hard Questions

Johann Christoph Arnold

In the catastrophic wake of Hurricane Katrina, America is no longer the same, and should never be the same again. Watching the news, and hearing and reading the chilling firsthand accounts of people who were trapped in this tragedy, how can one not be affected? All of a sudden, our country has been faced with a calamity we cannot keep at arm’s length—a calamity of the sort that, up till now, only happened to people in far-off Asia, Africa, or Latin America. 


One could say plenty regarding our government’s response (or lack thereof), and about how many more lives could have been saved if those in power had been more on the ball. But this is not the time to point fingers: we have been struck, unprepared, by a mammoth refugee crisis, widespread lawlessness, martial law, and a degree of public panic that has never been associated with life in the United States.


Not surprisingly, the news media is obsessed with the economic consequences of Katrina: the skyrocketing cost of gas, the instability of the real estate market, and the weakening of the dollar, to name just a few. As usual, it seems that the financial and material aspects of the disaster are of paramount importance to us. For many people, the biggest question seems to be, “How long will it be before the price of gas goes down again, and I can return to life-as-usual?”


Very few people seem to be asking what sort of a spiritual impact this disaster will have, and whether we are going to let it affect our consciences and our collective soul. Shouldn’t we all be praying for a spiritual renewal, and for a new era of justice and love? To me, that is the sort of question we should be asking.


Having said this, I’m sure that the people who have been personally devastated by Katrina are dealing with these deeper issues, and I pray that they find the nearness of God like never before.


Over the past week I found myself thinking of the Old Testament story of Nineveh, and of Jonah, whom God sent to preach repentance there. At first Jonah refused, but when he finally obeyed, the people of the city listened to him and proclaimed a fast—everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth.


The story goes on that when the news reached the king, he, too, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth and sat in ashes. When God saw the change of heart that had occurred among the people of Nineveh, he changed his mind about the calamity he had threatened to bring on them, and showed them mercy.


The story of Jonah ought to speak to us now, in the wake of Katrina. It ought to unite us and bring us to our knees, to plead with God that he intervenes and changes our hearts, and that he is merciful.


Something else I have been thinking about in the last days is America’s immunity, over the last century, to disaster on its own shores. World War I, World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the two Persian Gulf wars, famines in Africa, and scourges like AIDS, which is killing millions of people in the Third World—none of these horrific happenings has had a lasting effect on us.


Even if in the two world wars (and other wars), American soldiers were killed or wounded in action, the vast majority of us were never in harm’s way. And most of us are still sitting pretty.


We have made an idol of our invincibility and our status as an economic giant and a military superpower. We have made an idol of our high standard of living, our religion, and our supposed closeness to God.


Until last week, when Katrina blew in, we thought we could handle any and every crisis that came along. But in five short days, some of our most cherished ideals—take “government for the people,” for instance—have been exposed as illusions. To the despairing and the dying in New Orleans—and thus to everyone—all our glorious American achievements mean absolutely nothing.


This should not depress us. It is actually an hour of grace for our country—a chance for us to learn that suffering can bring us closer to each other, and to God.


Most other nations have suffered war, famine, diseases, and natural disasters. It has humbled them, and now it is our turn. That is good, because we are not as big and strong as we have made ourselves out to be.


Americans have long been known as a nation of generous do-gooders. But it is easy to be generous when one has plenty of money and food. Now, in the aftermath of Katrina, we are finding that our safety nets have gaping holes. The big infrastructures we believed in seem to be collapsing around us. We are floundering. And this is happening because, like the people of Nineveh, we have forgotten God.


To some readers this may seem an unfair accusation. We are a deeply religious nation, a nation where God is preached in every church on every Sunday—a nation where every coin and dollar bill bears his name. Yet Jesus’ words about the Pharisees still apply to us: “They worship me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.”

If we took this warning seriously—as a chance to rediscover God’s will for our nation—we could find out what role he really wants us to play in today’s world. If we were ready to admit that we need the help of other nations and cultures, we might find out that all people around the globe are really one family under God. 


Tremendous things could happen if we used this opportunity to rediscover the significance of all human beings—no matter whether they call themselves Christians, or whether they have been “saved.” We have all been created in the image of God. So let us not miss this chance to band together in solidarity with those who are suffering. Like the people of Nineveh, we will discover that God is there, waiting to help us—if only we turn to him.